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Shoe salesman brings his merchandise to his customers
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Photo: Todd Mizener
Driver/salesman Pete Sergeant, office manager Bev McAninch, driver/salesman Bob Angelo and Holmes Shoes Vice President Dave Holmes use three trucks to visit factories and smaller shops to sell their merchandise on site.
MOLINE -- Professional golf once enticed David Holmes before he put his foot into his family's shoe-selling business many years ago.

Now he makes drives that reach workers in local factories and industrial sites with different brands, styles and sizes of footwear.

Going directly to a factory's doors may remind some people of legendary traveling salesmen stories, but to Mr. Holmes, it's a modern-day tale of adapting to market conditions and carving out a new niche to keep a long-term business alive and flourishing.

''This has been a family business for 123 years,'' he said, referring to the Schwenker-Mougin Corp., to which Holmes Shoes belongs.

He traces his family's shoe-tree back to Calvin Holmes, ''my grandfather on my dad's side,'' he said.

Old newspaper clippings, some of which David Holmes has laminated and framed, tell of how Cal Holmes joined the business in 1921 and became partners with Otto Schwenker and Mary Mougin. Cal Holmes was promoted to general manager in the 1930s.

He died in 1991, after a 70-year career as a Moline merchant and a 45-year member of the Moline Rotary Club.

His son, Arthur Holmes, started serving as president and store manager in the 1970s.

''I got my foot into the shoe business by working with my father during my summer breaks from college, starting in 1985,'' David Holmes said.

For the past 15 years, he has specialized in the industrial footwear division as a company vice president.

''And we've worked with all the big ones, including every Deere plant in this Iowa and Illinois region,'' Mr. Holmes said.

Other places it has taken him include Caterpillar, 3M, Exelon and numerous smaller companies, ''down to a single office with only 15 to 20 people.''

He compared what he does to the old bookmobiles that would ''roll up to our school, so we could go out and look at all the books before deciding which ones to buy,'' Mr. Holmes said.

Mobile units his staff and he use come in three versions -- a smaller truck, an RV and a Freightliner for the biggest jobs.

The sides of each unit proudly bear the Holmes Shoes name and lists the brands they commonly carry, including Red Wings, Doc Martens, Skechers, Converse and Timberland.

They also sell a John Deere brand of footwear.

Selling 300 to 400 pairs of shows per day isn't uncommon, Mr. Holmes said.

''We have sold up to 500 pairs per day,'' he said.

'"We can haul around 800 pairs of shoes and have 60 different styles on the truck -- everything from a business shoe to tennis shoes to the slip-resistant, steel-toed industrial footwear,'' Mr. Holmes said.

It's sure different than it was in ''my days,'' said Bob Angelo, 73, who serves as one of the drivers. He doesn't remember anything close to the number of styles they carry today, nor does he remember anyone bringing them directly to a work site.

''But what happened in the retail market is that people changed the way they were shopping for such shoes,'' Mr. Holmes said.

Some people have turned to the Internet, which is fine, he said, as long as the shopper wears the same size, style and brand of shoe.

But if they need shoes for different jobs or get interested in different brands and styles, they still need somewhere to go to try them on, with the help of someone who can make sure they get the right fit, he said.

''So here we come, right up to the factory doors, and have customers walk right in and find a great pair of shoes, just as people have for the last 123 years when coming to our store,'' he said.''A lot of people appreciate having this service brought to them. A lot of companies like it a lot, too.''

Employees don't have to leave work, and employers can know exactly what their workers get and what they're paying good money for, he said.''Employees get the right shoes they need on the spot, and the company knows immediately what they're being billed,'' Mr. Holmes said.

Mr. Holmes enjoys the industrial footwear division ''because of the creativity it requires,'' he said. ''It means finding ways to do business outside the walls of our stores.''

The days can be quite long, and the miles can add up, he said.

But it provides a ''big chunk'' of the company's overall business, and ''gives you a great feeling driving by factories, knowing workers in them are wearing your shoes,'' Mr. Holmes said.

''There's no such thing as a typical day,'' driver Pete Sergeant said. ''We sometimes have to cover three shifts, meaning we have to start real early in the morning, and not get done until late at night. But I like the variety of places we get to, from the large industrial site to the small 'mom-and-pop' type of places.''

''Meeting lots of people and seeing a lot of the Midwest'' is what Mr. Angelo likes the best, he said. ''But the key is making sure people have the right pair of shoes for the right job.''

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